Chapter 6 || Chort System

Ten days into folded space, I was woken out of a deep sleep by one of the sounds guaranteed to get my attention:  an emergency klaxon.  It's rare to hear one during interstellar travel, because you usually don't have time before you're powerless, hulled, vaporised or any combination of those events.  It is not something you ever want to hear twice.  I was halfway to the cockpit before my brain had fully woken up.

"Report," I snapped as I threw myself into my chair.  At first glance the boards were mostly green; structural integrity was holding, shields were fine, life support was nominal, weapons were cold and the engines were on standby. I couldn't figure out what caused the emergency.  Then the hairs stood up straight on the back of my neck.

"Misjump," the computer announced in its usual calm tone.  "Forty-six seconds ago we encountered some sort of disturbance in transit. I can't explain it any better than that, I can only tell you that the navigational computer thinks we're now off-course.  I recommend an immediate return to normal space."

It was a huge decision to make. Cutting short a trip through folded space could land me in the middle of nowhere with weak magnetic and gravitational fields.  Without strong overlapping fields, it could be years before the Gilmour could reach a navigable jump point.  I only had supplies for a month, maybe two if I stretched it.  The cargo hold full of durasteel alloy wasn't going to help keep me alive.  On the other hand, riding out this jump could land me literally anywhere in the universe, and not likely a corner I was familiar with.  The disturbance itself could have already projected me far enough off-course that I'd never get home.  The only way to know was to transit out and take a look around.

"Emergency transition on my mark. Shields to maximum, reaction engines online.  Disengage transition!"

There was a shudder, and the universe changed around me.  The stars burned brightly in the deep of space, hanging like jewelled sparks suspended in a majestic waterfall.  I appeared to be oriented perpendicular to the outer edge of a spiral galaxy. As I had been in a spiral galaxy before I had hope I hadn't gone too far, but being on the edge meant wherever I was, it wasn't where I had wanted to go.  All I could do now was wait for the navigational computer to decide if it could identify enough reference points to get back to civilisation.  I found myself popping my knuckles frantically and tried to stop.  I ended up starting it again seconds later.

"Navigational match," the computer reported, and I let out the breath I'd been holding.  "We're on the extreme edge of the north eastern end of the galaxy in the Ichthis Spiral."

I didn't recognise the name, and said so.

"That's because this is largely Tharl-controlled space, Boss.  We're in enemy territory.  You remember our last encounter with them."

So I did.  I wished I didn't.  "Okay, how far to the nearest Federation-controlled territory?"

"If we push the engines, three years, twelve days, one hour and forty-two minutes.  I can't find any local points of overlap to make a transition jump, so we're going to have to rely on the reaction engines."

I sat back in my seat, stunned. The Gilmour's reaction engines could push closer to the lightspeed barrier than any other Federation ship causing an extreme time-dilation effect.  While travel to star systems would still be measured in decades, the amount of time I experienced would be exponentially decreased the closer I approached the tau barrier.  What the computer just told me was that even with time-dilation I'd spend three years subjective time travelling, meaning a trip of centuries for the Gilmour.  Even if I had the supplies to survive the trip, everyone and everything familiar to me would be long gone.  I could send out a hyperspace message to call for help, but anyone who came for me would be trapped as I was.

"Okay, let's try a different angle.  How close to the nearest populated system?"

"There's a Tharl-controlled system approximately twelve light-years away.  We could be there in a short time subjectively.  The problem is, we'd probably get vaporised the moment they identified us.  They weren't happy to see us the last time we violated their territory."

One of my finger joints gave off an unusually loud pop as the tendon shifted.  I was really going to have to cure that habit.  For the moment, my mind was searching anxiously for options.  I thought about making the long trip back to Federation territory in spite of the consequences by placing myself under the influence of the stasis generators.  There were freighters who hauled live cargo all the time, and rumours of pirates and smugglers who put human slaves under stasis for easy maintenance.  There was no official word on what this might do to a man, but it seemed a better alternative. My other choices seemed to waver between slow starvation and quick destruction.  The Tharl were notorious about their unwillingness to take prisoners, so my chances of survival depended on my ability to fight my way to the planet's surface.

I punched up the star charts and examined the data based on where the navigational computer thought we were.  It identified two nebula, seven black holes and three pulsars based on radiation frequency, strength and composition.  I was satisfied it knew where we were. We seemed to be very close to a pulsar designated AN-1954.  On the other side of that star was a blue giant star system with a series of planets inhabited by the Tharl.  The computer didn't have a name for it, only another serial number.  Whatever the Tharl called it, they weren't telling us.  Several hundred light-years in the other direction lay the nearest Federation system, a star labelled Durdan.  I'd never been there, never heard of it.  I was truly a long way from home.

My knuckles cracked again, and I came to a decision.  "Project a course for the nearest Tharl system.  Friendly or not, they're our best chance of getting out of here before my Guild membership expires."

"The pulsar creates a significant navigational hazard, Boss.  We don't want to get too close to it."

"How much delay will we experience by vectoring around it?"

"Nine days if we play it safe."

"How close do you think we can come to it without getting into too much trouble?"

"It's hard to say, Boss.  At a rough estimate, I'd estimate we could come to within twenty astronomical units without too much damage.  But with the radiation it's putting out, you'll need to inspect and overhaul every system the moment we land."

"I'm willing to take that chance."  I leaned forward and began the course change.  The galaxy swung away from my vision until it occupied only a small sliver of the cockpit window.  Then the engines kicked in at full burn.  We'd be able to maintain this burn for about thirty-nine days before the fuel ran out. We'd be close enough to some sort of civilisation long before that, so I could afford the cost.  After a moment I made another decision and adjusted the heading slightly.  I decided to use the pulsar's gravitational field as a means to increase our speed even further before attempting to slingshot around it.  The ghost of an idea was haunting the back of my brain, but I needed more data.  "Time to pulsar?"

"On our present heading, we'll intercept it head-on in five days, ten hours and fifty-one minutes."

"Let me know when things start getting interesting."  I climbed out of my chair and headed back for my cabin.  I was due for another five hours of sleep, if I could manage it.  Before that, I left a message with John in the Fantulis system where I had been bound.  I summarised the situation I was in and what I hoped to do.  He would have to continue on without me for a while.

Sleep was not easy over the next five days.  Within the first forty-eight hours we started experiencing interference from the pulsar. It was a particularly energetic one, blasting X-rays and radio waves up and down the spectrum at a remarkably high frequency.  The computer was checking its calculations and thinking we might not get into the twenty AU range of the star after all.  It felt odd to be heading for a specific point I couldn't see, but I trusted my instruments and I could see the havoc it was playing on the ship.  All systems were heavily shielded against hard radiatio (particularly me), but there was a limit to any shielding.  I did my best to hold the Gilmour together, adding more insulation, replacing burned out breakers, tweaking power systems and mumbling curses and praises under my breath.  Based on the data the computer was compiling, a normal freighter would have fried within a couple of days of this punishment, but I was again reaping the benefits of a ship designed for long-range exploration:  the Gilmour's builders had tried to allow for every conceivable circumstance including the environment I now found myself in.

Two days out from the pulsar I started checking the scans for magnetic and gravidic fields hourly. An object like this had to be generating some incredible fields, and it was in my mind to use them to escape.  The scans were not encouraging:  gravity was increasing steadily, but the magnetic fields were fluctuating madly.  This was not really a surprise given the extremes of the situation, but I cursed the malignant humour of the universe anyway.  Given that gravity operates on an inverse square law, the computer and I calculated and agreed that we'd need to be within twenty-five AU at minimum before we could successfully use the transition engines to re-enter folded space. The question was whether or not we could predict the fluctuation of the magnetic fields reliably enough to make our jump.  Only time would tell, and rather than drive myself mad with speculation I threw myself into working as hard as I could, taking breaks only when sheer exhaustion forced me to stop or pass out.  It was the only time I could sleep, and then not for very long.

Without warning, the Gilmour began to come alive with sound.  It began with whispers barely above the threshold of hearing. Much of what was produced was either ultra or subsonic, and my body ached or shook.  It was what I thought I heard that really got to me.  I heard voices not unlike the whispers I imagined I heard in folded space.  These weren't subtle, seductive invitations, though.  They were curses and blasphemy, faint shouts of rage no longer hinted but expressed directly.  When I enquired the computer assured me they were vibrations generated by uneven stresses on the hull, all within safe parameters.  When I asked why they were starting to sound like individual members of my family, it replied that my mind was playing tricks on me before changing the subject to distract me.  It worked some of the time.  I really hated to hear Jiran's voice accusing me of abandoning her, of leaving her to predators to live in misery before coming to a long, lingering death.  I had done no such thing, of course; Jiran had left on her own, unannounced and untraceable.  The voice in my ship suggested otherwise.  My father's voice was there as well, of course.  He condemned me repeatedly for being a dreamer, a slacker and a thief.  He questioned my morals, my integrity and loyalty.  He cursed the day he surrendered to the lust that conceived me. However, his condemnation bothered me much less than Jiran's voice.  While my father's voice lambasted me for the things I knew I was guilty of, Jiran passed judgement on what I didn't do and couldn't have known.

The vibrations from the hull intensified and the voices went away after half a day.  The groans and pops were somewhat of a relief, but only if I didn't think about what was happening to my ship.  I'd never been in a situation where the Gilmour or any vessel had undergone such stresses, and I couldn't begin to imagine the problems it was inviting.  I swore the moment I got back to civilisation I was going to have the Gilmour checked out and overhauled inch by inch.

One day out from the pulsar I was forced to don an environmental suit.  It made life particularly difficult to lumber about in the bulky thing, but radiation from the pulsar had risen to the level that the Gilmour could no longer effectively block it out.  If I was to survive, I needed additional protection.  The suit was skintight and sported all the comforts of home, but it denied me the direct contact feel I relied on when making repairs or working an instrument board.  I had to work entirely by sight alone, and it slowed me down as I checked for mistakes.  Plus, the plumbing connections weren't exactly comfortable, and the suit's emergency rations couldn't be described as gourmet.  I couldn't even indulge my habit of cracking my knuckles.  I didn't like wearing those suits at all.  The only good bit of news was the computer's announcement that it felt it could predict the magnetic fluctuations with an error of only 17.781%. Its accuracy would continue to improve as we got closer, but it was hesitant to go much further.

"Aside to the damage from the Gilmour's power and systems, the radiation is increasing to the degree that you'll end up cooked in your suit.  We'll have to shut down all non-essential systems to prevent further damage; I'm not even sure I'll be functioning well enough to engage the transition engines at the correct moment.  I think our best bet is to start a slingshot manoeuvre around the pulsar and take our chances with the Tharl."

I looked at the figures on the board.  "We're too close. The prolonged exposure would cook us worse than if we forged ahead."

"If we started our slingshot the radiation will only decrease," the computer replied reasonably. "If we forge ahead, as you put it, we'll suffer increasingly higher doses each second.  We're rapidly approaching our safety limit now, and we're still too far out to attempt a jump.  You won't survive another day of this."

I shook my head stubbornly inside my helmet.  "There's got to be a way to do this.  Our chances for survival are slim unless we can reach Federation territory, and as things stand now we won't be able to dodge any Tharl scouts long enough to reach a jump point."

We both lapsed into silence as we contemplated this.  I mused that on the bright side, my alternatives were no longer included death by starvation, merely annihilation or irradiation.  On the other hand, my future was as bleak as it had been before.  There wasn't a system onboard that wasn't already damaged by the pulsar's output, except possibly the stasis generators that weren't in use....

I sat up.  "Suppose we went into stasis until we reached the jump point?"

"How would you place the entire ship into stasis, and how would you shut it down at the correct time?"

I thought about that for a moment.  "We can't project a stasis field around the Gilmour, but we can put me in one.  That takes care of me.  For the rest, we can do a full shutdown of all systems, including yours.  We'll have to do radiation cleanup once we come out of folded space, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.  We coast in on inertia for a preset period of time, then shut down the stasis generators.  I wake up, restart your systems and we find a jump point fast.  We incur minimal damage for the few moments it takes."

"Okay, assuming we can do all that, how do we shut down the stasis generators at the preset time? I won't be awake to do it, and we don't know how much damage the stasis generators can handle before they fail or malfunction."

"We...give the generators a limited power supply.  Set them up to a battery and hardwire it to broadcast full power until it's used up, no trickle-down.  We just make sure there's only enough power to last and no longer.  Calculating from our present velocity, how long would we need?"

The computer's video image blipped as it obeyed.  I hadn't seen it do that in a while, and it added to my worries. "Twenty-one hours, eleven minutes and fifty-two seconds."

"What do you think?"

"I think it depends on too many variables.  If you can survive entering stasis.  If you can survive the radiation you'll encounter after you wake up.  If I can survive the journey out, or if I can function in the environment when I'm restarted. If I can successfully calculate a jump point for the transition engines before we both cease to function.  If we don't hit another distortion while in folded space to throw us off course."

"Other than that, I mean."

"Other than that, I think it might work."

"Good.  We'll do it."

"I have to advise against this, Boss.  The margin for error is extremely narrow."

"Yeah, I know.  But we're doing it anyway."

"You're insane, but you're the boss.  You'd better get started on that battery."

It was the work of a half hour to get the battery set up to the generators and drained to the point where there would be slightly more than a day's worth of power.  It was the work of two more to convince the battery to broadcast at full power until it was completely dead.  It definitely violated the warrantee from the manufacturer, but that was a mere detail.  The computer began to shut down critical systems, leaving itself for the last.

Finally, we were ready.

"Are you sure you want to do this, Boss?"

"No, I'm sure I don't.  But I'm going to do it anyway.  Did I forget anything?"

"Your sanity.  Otherwise, no."

"Okay, shut down. I'll see you at the jump point."

"Shutting down."

I pushed a button on the generator and froze.  Stasis generators are supposed to suspend everything, creating a little pocket of space/time in which everything is frozen down to the subatomic level, allowing no time to pass or allow any change.  I'd heard rumours of men entering stasis fields and coming out insane. Now I understand why.  Time doesn't stop within a stasis field, it continues at a remove.  If that doesn't make sense, I'm afraid I can't explain it any better.  All I know is that I was conscious for the entire seventeen or so hours.  It passed by in the blink of an eye, but I was aware of it.  I stared at my finger on the panel the entire time, trapped in immobility. I couldn't form a thought, take a breath or send an impulse to my hand to take it away, and I knew it the whole time. Nothing changed because nothing could change, no matter how desperately I wanted it to.

Then it stopped as abruptly as it started, and my lungs began to heave as though I'd been underwater too long and had only just reached the surface.  It took a moment for me to regain control of myself, and then I began to be aware that I was sweating.  I was feeling very warm inside my suit.  I looked around, but the ship was dark.  I could hear the hull pinging and groaning under stress and I felt around for the hatch.  It opened manually under my touch, and beyond it I found the lights.  The corridor lit up and everything looked normal, but I felt like I was looking at it through a short tunnel.  I didn't know if that was an effect of the radiation I was receiving or if it was an after-effect of the stasis field.  I stumbled for the cockpit and threw myself into my chair, fighting vertigo and nausea.  Then I began powering up systems beginning with the computer.

System check error, the computer printed on screen one.  My heart skipped a beat.  Then it continued.  Re-routing. Reroute successful, main processor online.  Activating secondary systems.  Artificial intelligence coming on-line.

"Boss, we're in trouble," the computer announced as its video image flickered into view. "We came out of stasis too early."

"Too early?  By how much?"

"Maybe half an hour, it's hard to tell.  The navigational computer is having trouble.  Initial scans suggest the local gravity isn't enough to engage the transition engines."

I swore softly and slammed my fist against the bulkhead.  "If we go to full burn on the engines, how long would it take us to get to a jump point?"

There was a significant pause.  "Seven minutes."

I didn't hesitate. I reached out and ordered the engines to restart.  The Gilmour shuddered ominously as they warmed up.  As soon as the readout said the engines were close to nominal, I set them on full power.  The shuddering increased, drowning out the other noises the ship was making.

"Boss!" the computer shouted at me over the din.  "Radiation levels are too high!  We won't survive seven minutes of this!"

"We've got to!" I shouted back.  "We don't have any choice!  Maximum power to the shields, emergency overload.  Shunt the navigational computer to screen one and the sensor scans to screen two. I can't depend on you, so you shut down while I engage the transition engines manually."

"Shields on emergency overload.  Good luck, Boss. It was nice working with you."  The computer's video image went black, and then the data I'd ordered was displayed.

The minutes crawled by as I stared at the display.  The magnetic fields were shifting madly, too fast for me to follow the numbers.  Instead, I stared at the numbers indicating the gravity field, watching for the point when I could try to jump the Gilmour out.  The hull whined and complained at the abuse I was subjecting it to, and the engines seemed to shrill in my ears.  The stars I could see glared at me in blue-shift as I climbed toward the speed of light.  The fact that I would never reach it was less important than the fact that every kilometre we passed was a kilometre closer to survival.  I wanted to live.  No matter what else, that desire stayed with me.  I wanted to live.

Five minutes later I had to shake myself awake.  I was beginning to drift, and I couldn't afford that.  Everything depended on my ability to push a button at the right time. The screen danced in my vision.  I began entering data into the navigational computer, computing a jump through folded space based on my estimate of the gravitational field and what I hoped would happen with the magnetic fields.  It was too soon to be doing this I knew, but I did it anyway.  I wanted to live.

I looked at the sensor readouts and discovered I'd already passed the earliest point at which we could jump.  More time had passed without my realising it.  My first thought was amazement that I was still alive.  My second thought was that my calculations were going to be off.  But there was no time.  I felt my consciousness begin to slip away.  My choices were diminishing rapidly.  I wanted to live.

I pushed the button, and the Gilmour left the universe for folded space.  Then I blacked out.

I was alive.  I don't know how and I don't know why, but I was alive.  I woke up in a good mood.  I don't know what I had been dreaming, but it was a good dream.  I could feel the smile turning up the corners of my mouth as consciousness returned.  Life was good.

I realized I couldn't move.  My good mood slipped a little bit, but not much.  I couldn't move, but I couldn't think of a compelling reason why I needed to move just now.  It felt good to lay on my starchy sheets and relax, let my body float on the wave of mild euphoria that washed over me.  There was no hurry for anything.  I'd figure out why I couldn't move in a little bit.

I heard voices floating somewhere above the euphoria I felt.  The voices were totally unfamiliar to me, but that didn't seem important right now.  I opened my eyes. I was lying in a narrow bed with white sheets surrounded by machines I couldn't identify.  I heard voices again, and a deep, masculine voice said something that was totally insignificant to me.  I closed my eyes again and fell back to sleep.

I woke up again a while later, but I don't know how much time had passed.  The euphoria hadn't gone away, but wasn't as strong as before. It wasn't as hard to move anymore, either.  I lifted my head and regretted it.  A wave of vertigo overcame me, and I let myself relax back into the pillow.  The pillowcase was stiff, and the pillow itself was harder than I liked.  Just like a hospital, where they make you comfortable, but not too comfortable.  You feel motivated to get well so you can get away.

Something about this seemed familiar to me, and I realised with a mild shock that I was in a hospital again, hooked up to another one of those alpha-wave things that kept me from writhing in agony.  Otherwise my thoughts came through in a bland, matter-of-fact way.  I found myself able to move slowly, so I lifted my head gently to look around.  It looked like a hospital, but it was a tight little room with barely enough space to fit the machines connected to me, let alone a human being.  Gradually, I was able to focus on writing on the wall next to what looked like an intercom.  It read, "Hospital Bay, Intensive Care Unit 8."  There seemed to be something like a serial number underneath.

I looked around for a call button or something to summon a nurse, but I didn't find anything.  This didn't bother me as much as it might have, seeing as I had no real choice in my mood.  I relaxed and counted marks on the walls as I waited for someone to tend to me.

A section of the wall next to the intercom hissed open efficiently, and a tall young woman with short hair stepped through the hatch.  She was dressed in a white smock with a naval insignia on the shoulder and left breast pocket.  Her collar sported the double-bar symbol of a Navy Lieutenant.  She paused as she reached for the tablet at the foot of the bed and regarded me with intense brown eyes.  Then she completed the motion she'd started and scanned the data.  A moment later the eyes lifted to meet mine.  "How do you feel, Trader Takenoshita?"

"Thanks to your miracle machine, I feel just great."

"Of course, that was a silly question.  Let me rephrase." It could have been my imagination, but it seemed that her eyes twinkled a little bit.  "Does anything feel numb or otherwise out of the ordinary?"

I took stock.  Everything seemed to be in place, and nothing seemed particularly numb.  I wiggled my fingers and toes and giggled slightly at the pleasure of it.  "Everything seems to be fine, thanks."

The young Lieutenant did her best to hide a smile at my giggle.  "I think we can safely turn down the alpha-wave sympathiser a notch."

"Um, if you don't mind...." I began.

"Yes?" she asked as she leaned over the bed to adjust something.  I noticed her uniform couldn't quite hide her pleasantly abundant features. Then I noticed the euphoria drop off significantly, and I re-evaluated the sensations being reported to my brain.  I ached all over, but enough euphoria remained to keep the edge off.  I shortly noticed that my skin felt stiff all over, as if it had been dried in the sun and plastered back onto my body.

"Wow, that's weird," I said as I worked to assimilate what my body was telling me.  "Sorry.  I was wondering if you could tell me where I am?"

"You're aboard the Navy battleship Brisbane, Trader Takenoshita.  I'm Lieutenant Meyers, assigned to the Hospital Bay where you've been recovering for the past three weeks."

Three weeks?  Navy battleship?  And while I was asking questions to myself, how did she know my name? I opened my mouth, but too many questions crowded it and all I was able to croak out was "Three weeks?"

"Yes.  Your ship came out of jump some three million kilometres to our stern.  We were already at battle stations, so you almost got a few particle cannons shoved down your throat.  Fortunately for you we were able to identify you as friendly, especially since your ship was showing no active emissions.  Then we saw how much damage you'd sustained and towed you aboard.  If it'd taken us much longer you would have died of radiation poisoning just short of your goal, wherever that was."

"Safety, pretty much," I replied as my mind raced.  I thought about the Gilmour and the damage she'd taken from the pulsar.  I'd passed out after successfully jumping into folded space, that much I remembered.  How had I gotten out?  I didn't think I'd ever find out. Maybe the computer could tell me, if it was still operational.  "My ship, is she still intact?"

"I'm told she's in pretty bad shape, but salvageable.  I'm sorry, I don't know much more than that.  We've been a little more concerned over your health.  There wasn't enough undamaged tissue in your body to generate an antidote, so things were pretty touch and go for a while."

"Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for all you've done.  But if I was so bad off, how am I talking to you now?"

"You're a very lucky man, Trader Takenoshita.  Your sister is a close enough genetic match that we were able to generate the medicine you needed from her blood."

I sat bolt upright in bed, and instantly collapsed.  I was too weak for such acrobatics, but I couldn't have helped myself.  "My sister?"  Jiran's voice came back to me, haunting me within the corridors of the Gilmour.

"Yes, Commander Mika Takenoshita, your sister.  She's been in here every day when her duties will allow.  She saved your life, Trader Takenoshita.  You're a very lucky man."

"Is she on duty now? Can I talk to her?"

Lieutenant Meyers glanced at her wrist.  "I don't know, she might be.  Let me check." She reached over to the intercom and pressed it.  "Hospital Bay calling Flight Deck Two-Two.  Commander Takenoshita, please respond."

A long moment passed, then a reply came back.  "Hospital Bay, this is Mika.  Go ahead.  Is Hideo awake yet?"

"He is, and he's asking for you, Commander.  He wants to know when you're off-duty."

"Good morning, space brain!  I was starting to think you'd never wake up!  I'll be there in three-quarters of an hour.  Two-Two out."

Lieutenant Meyers smiled at me.  "There you are. She'll see you soon.  Now I need to finish my rounds.  Can I get you anything else?"

I thought about this. "A glass of water?"

"How about some ice chips?  I'll be right back."  She opened the hatch and stepped out.  When she returned, she had a small paper cup filled with slivers of ice.  I sucked one into my mouth and let it melt on my tongue. It felt heavenly.  When I looked up again, she was gone.

It was hard to wait for Mika to arrive.  With the euphoria diminished waiting wasn't so easy and there was nothing to do or look at, nothing to pass the time.  I tried counting my pulse to estimate the time but I lost count after a few minutes. I can be a patient man, but it depends on the circumstances.  This was not one of them.  If I could have, I would have slept.

The door hissed open, and I saw Mika's round, pretty face break into a wide grin.

"There you are, you space brain!  Dad always said you gave him grey hairs, and now you've started on me!"

"Mika!" I cried, lifting my arms for a hug.  She obliged me, and we stayed like that for a while.  I felt tears in my eyes and didn't fight them.  I hadn't seen her in a long time, hadn't seen anyone in the family for over three years.  It was good to see her.  Eventually we parted and I gave her a long look.  She was slimmer than I'd last seen her, and the short regulation length of her hair framed her face nicely.  The eyes were our father's, but her pert nose was our mother's all the way.  Her uniform was dirty, stained with grease and other fluids less identifiable.  She smelled like an engine hatch, although her face and hands were clean. She'd always been fastidious that I could remember, so I imagined she'd cleaned up as much as she could on her way here.

"Commander Mika," I corrected myself.  "Who'da thought you'd make Commander at your age?"

Her smile darkened a little bit, but stubbornly refused to disappear.  I'd obviously touched a nerve, but she wasn't going to let it ruin our reunion.  "Oh well, the Navy has lots of opportunities for ambitious people like me.  I'm on the fast track to command.  I'm already in charge of a full flight deck.  And you!  Trader Hideo, gallivanting across the galaxy in a souped-up hotrod!"

"Yeah, speaking of that Mika, what about my ship?  How is she?"

Mika perched delicately on the edge of the bed and regarded me seriously.  "The David Gilmour took a huge beating, Hideo.  I don't know if you were in a firefight or what, but a lot of your systems are fried.  She's grounded for the time being, but then again, so are you.  Neither you or your ship are going anywhere for a while."

I felt a lump in my throat, and my heart began to race.  Were they going to arrest me for my connection with the Naridi Consortium?  "Uh, why?"

"Because you landed smack-dab in the middle of a warzone, Hideo.  I don't think you intended to jump here, but the Brisbane is on picket duty in Tharl territory.  They call it the Chort system.  The Navy is attempting to choke off one of their major supply worlds in preparation for invasion.  Nothing is going in or out without our permission, and Traders like you are specifically on our watchlist.  You're not under arrest, but the Captain has made it clear you're not allowed to leave until this situation comes under control."

"Oh."  I sat back in bed and tried not to look too relieved. It didn't escape Mika, though.

"What's going on, little brother?"

"Who, me?  What makes you say that?"

"Because I know you, space brain.  Plus, I'm laying odds that the reason your ship was so beat up is because you're on the run from somebody.  Tell me I'm wrong."

"Easy.  You're wrong."

"I think you're lying."

"What makes you think that?"

"Your lips are moving."

We sat in silence for a moment.  Mika stared at me while I worked on my poker face.  I crumbled first.  Maybe one day I'll be good at cards.  "Well, I promise you the Gilmour wasn't damaged running from anybody.  I was running a load of durasteel when I misjumped in transit and came out some three hundred light years out from someplace called Durden, right in Tharl territory.  I decided to make for the nearest star system, but there was a pulsar in the way.  At first I was going to slingshot around it, but then I decided to use the pulsar to make a jump."

An expression of acute horror spread across my sister's face.  "Why in space did you do a fool thing like that, you space brain?"

"Because I guessed it was my best chance for survival. My alternatives were that, making my way to Durden or trying my luck dodging Tharl in their own territory.  I coasted into about twenty AU of the pulsar cold, packed into my own hold in stasis."  I shuddered remembering that bit, and moved on quickly.  "Something went wrong and we warmed up too soon.  I pushed the last bit as hard as I could and made the best jump possible under the circumstances.  The last thing I remember was sitting in the Gilmour's cockpit in my environmental suit plugging in jump coordinates and watching the scans.  Then I initiated a transition jump and blacked out.  The next thing I knew I was here.  I don't know how I got out of folded space."

Mika relaxed a little and leaned back on the bed, resting on her elbow.  "I think I can explain that one for you.  Your transition engines lost power, probably from a surge through the mains.  I found a blown conduit at one of the bypass circuits.  You're lucky it failed or the transition engines might have overloaded and who knows what would have happened?  Anyway, the engines lost power and you dropped back into normal space right on our six.  You almost got shot down."

"Yeah, Lieutenant Meyers told me about that."

"Lucky for you I was on duty at the moment.  I recognised the class and begged the Captain to hold fire.  I lead the team that went out to inspect the ship, and we confirmed you were harmless (if hot) and towed you on board.  I had to literally blast my way in; there was no power to anything."

I thought about the enhanced security, and realised it wouldn't have made any difference.  Mika continued blithely.  "When I found you in the cockpit my first thought was that Dad was going to kill me if I let you die.  We hauled you out on a stretcher and rushed you to the hospital bay.  When Doc Punjamin told me the trouble he was having getting an uncontaminated sample from your body, I volunteered to donate blood.  I swear the guy's a vampire, Hideo.  He took so much from me I was bedridden for three days.  If he asks you for a little sample, you kick him in the butt."

I nodded as gently as my aching head would allow.  "I will, I promise."

"That's about the long and the short of it.  You've been in recovery ever since, and I've been visiting now and then to check on your progress."

"The way I heard it, you've been in here atching over me whenever your duties will allow."

Mika shifted uncomfortably, caught out in her lie.  "Yeah, well, like I said. If I let you die, Dad would kill me and we both know it."

I nodded.  "He misses you a lot.  He would never say it, but he was so proud of you when you were accepted into officer training.  After your message, he told everybody who came into the store about his fine daughter the officer in the Navy.  You were always their pride and joy."

She gave me an odd look.  "Me?  You're the one Dad's always talking about when he sends me messages.  He's been worried sick about you.  I've got an entire Navy to look after me, but you've been on your own for three years in a very big and dangerous galaxy."

I frowned and tried not to look petulant.  "I'm a big boy. I can take care of myself."

"Of course you are, Hideo," Mika said with a pat on my knee.  "But things can happen to the best of us.  And let's face it, if your ship hadn't suddenly lost power you'd probably still be in folded space dead of radiation poisoning.  That's not the sort of thing Dad has to worry about with me."

"No, you're right," I conceded.  "Being a Trader isn't anything like I first expected.  Space, what a year I've had! But Mika, lay it on me straight.  The Gilmour.  How is she?  Is she salvageable?  Once I get clearance from the Captain, can I fly her out of here?"

She looked distinctly uncomfortable with the question.  "She took a lot of damage.  Most of your primary systems need new components, and I wouldn't trust your power systems for more than a few minutes.  She's going to need a lot of work, and it's going to cost you a lot."

"I can pay," I said quietly.  "I made a lot of money recently.  I was sort of toying with maybe buying a new ship, something a little better suited to trading. As I've been constantly reminded, the Gilmour just isn't cut out for classic trading.  She doesn't have the cargo capacity."

"Maybe so," Mike replied softly.  "But she kept you alive when other ships would fail.  I can't access your logs, but from what I've seen the Gilmour survived things I wouldn't trust the Brisbane to get through.  Think about that before you start shopping.  And if you've got the money to repair her, I might be able to arrange something so you've got what you need for the repairs.  You'll have to do most of the work yourself, of course; I can't spare the crew for a personal project."

"That's okay," I said earnestly.  "You get me the parts and I'll do the work myself.  It'll give me something to do while I wait.  I get the feeling I'm going to be here a while."

Working off spare parts I bought from the Brisbane's quartermaster, it took me three weeks just to restore partial power to the Gilmour.  The first thing I did after that was check on the computer systems.  Most of the computer banks were physically unharmed, although they'd been thoroughly purged.  Several of the older banks had suffered catastrophic failure from power overloads, and I spent a great deal of time replacing them and attempting to retrieve the data they contained. Once the hardware passed inspection, I was able to work on the software.  In spite of my lack of programming ability, this was a fairly simple job.  Stellar Construction had created a comprehensive backup of the entire system before they started on the upgrade, so all I had to do was pull it out of storage, plug it in and let the system restore itself.  I'd lose over a year's worth of data, but I'd have the same computer I had when I started.

Once restored, the computer was understandably confused.  We were not on Selaris II and there was less power available than before.  The first thing it did was to ask whom I was going to shoot for the lousy upgrade.  It seemed almost groggy, if such a thing can be said about silicon intelligence.  Then we got down to work, running diagnostics on all the systems, performing triage and discovering just how bad off we were.  It was a laundry list of parts.  Sensors, weapons, propulsion, shields, life support, everything that wasn't a total write-off was in dire need of servicing.  Miles of circuitry required replacing as well as most of the major power junctures.  The every generator was a fatality, dead from the overload that saved us from dying in folded space.  The failure of the junctures also prevented a majority of the other systems from being a total loss.  At this point it was still cheaper to salvage and restore the Gilmour instead of scrapping her and buying something else.  A curious tightness in my chest loosened up slightly when I realised that.

I threw myself into my work on the ship, pausing only to eat or sleep.  Mika watched me with an expression that shifted subtly between amusement and concern.  She knew something was bothering me, but I wasn't ready to talk about it. She must have been in good favour with the captain or something because no one ever hassled me about my presence onboard in a warzone or suggested I might be overstaying my welcome.  Except for an almost invisible pair of sentries who shadowed my every movement the crew seemed to accept me without comment. I got the impression that so long as Mika vouched for me, they figured I must be okay.  She always had the knack for dealing with people that I envied.  Even my computer seemed to like her; they were forever making wry comments about me that stopped just short of being insulting.  I did my best to ignore it.

Mika had questioned the wisdom of starting on the computer system, but work progressed faster once it came online. After a week of listening to it stutter with power fluctuations, I begged for and grudgingly obtained permission to hook directly into a power feed from the Brisbane. Thereafter the computer was able to perform diagnostics as repairs were made, saving us hours of testing by hand.  As it had all of the circuit boards and schematics in memory, it could even trace routes that were blocked so we could do them in order rather than hunt for them board-by-board.  Replacing the remainder of the Gilmour's burned out power junctions and circuit boards went much faster, paving the way for other repairs.

With Mika's help I began to get to know the crew of the Brisbane fairly well.  Once again, I was a welcome addition to the weekly poker game largely due to my lack of skill.  I developed a very close and frequent relationship with Gunnery Sergeant Dag, the quartermaster who negotiated like the devil himself. The old fellow had clearly been honing his skills for years in Navy yards where the right name and a bottle of something nice could spell the difference between proper equipment and half-rate junk.  I'm sure I lost my shirt to him more than once, but on the other hand what I was able to purchase was military grade.  I don't think the Gilmour's forward cannon had been so powerful since her days as a scout.  Through me, Dag got invited to Mika's weekly poker game.  I considered it poetic justice, the way they'd been fleecing me.

I learned some remarkable things about the Navy at those poker games.  Within a short time I was just another guy at the table, and they talked shop like any other professionals.  I learned who to see for the best contraband and who to avoid on general principle.  I learned quite a bit of the lingo, the internal phrases and acronyms that naturally develop among people in similar work.  I learned they had very little respect for GalPol officers, or "Fivers" as they called them.  They had great respect, even fear for the Tharl forces.  It seemed that the Tharl destroyed three Federation ships for every one that they lost.  The Federation was forced to throw overwhelming numbers at the Tharl to offset their technological disadvantage, and the picket around Chort was far too small for anyone's comfort.  The fact that the Brisbane was the second-largest class of ship in the Navy's ranks didn't raise anyone's hopes; it just meant they were going to be the first to get shot at.

It was around three months after I'd woken up in the hospital bay when I was working on a stubborn power feed to the reaction engines.  Something was creating a drain resulting in sluggish responses.  That could be bad not only if I needed the engines in a hurry, but also when I needed them to turn off during manoeuvres.  I'd replaced every component in the system I could think of without resolving the problem, so I was starting to check on nearby systems.  Then somebody tapped the heel of my boot to get my attention.

"Be right with you," I called and started securing my tools.

"Smartly, if you please Trader Takenoshita," replied an unfamiliar voice.

The formality of the statement wasn't lost on me.  Everybody I met on board seemed comfortable in calling me by my given name rather than my family name or Guild rank.  I rushed to get the hatch secured and scurried out of the service bay supporting the reaction engines.  I was greeted with the sight of two tall, muscular fellows in proper Marine uniforms; members of the sentry details shadowing me since I'd arrived.  I'd never spoken with any of them, though I tried once. They had never said a word to me before.

"What can I do for you gentlemen?" I asked as I wiped grease off my hands with a spare rag.

The shorter of the two, a furry tripedal creature from the Yykkyyss system far from my home, gestured brusquely. "Trader Takenoshita, you are to accompany us to see Captain Sachs immediately."

I frowned as I finished wiping my hands, trying to stall for time.  Captain Sachs was the junior captain of the ship, the second-in-command for the vessel.  His job was largely administrative in nature, handling personnel and equipment matters in addition to advising the senior captain, Captain Ceaucescu, on tactical issues.  There was a very large chain of command in place on the Brisbane as I understood it, and I couldn't think of any reason why Captain Sachs should need to see me personally.  The hair started rising on the back of my head.

"May I ask why –"

"No questions," the other interrupted quickly.  "No talk.  You are to come with us now."  He was human and his expression was much easier to read than his alien partner.  He seemed to think I'd done something very wrong, and for the life of me I couldn't think what.

Unfortunately, the impressive physical conditioning and weapons the marines carried suggested I should do as they said without discussion.  They made no hostile movements and their weapons stayed in their holsters, but the human's attitude suggested he might enjoy it if I resisted arrest, or whatever this was.  I bit my tongue and went with them.

It was a long walk to Captain Sachs' office along unfamiliar corridors and up decks I'd never been to before.  We encountered a couple of crewmembers who knew me by sight, but the guards escorting me quickly discouraged any conversation before it started.  Then we entered officer country where I knew nobody at all and eventually arrived at our destination.  I was invited to sit in a small, uncomfortable chair across from a male secretary's desk while Captain Sachs got around to seeing me.  The marines stood silently on either side of me.  The secretary looked up at me only once as I entered and paused long enough to inform me that the captain was in a meeting but would see me shortly.  Then he went back to working at his console without paying any more attention to us.  I tried not to fidget as I waited, and failed miserably as usual.  The small office was filled with the sounds of the secretary typing at his keyboard and my knuckles protesting the abuse I was giving them.

It was a very long half hour before the comm on the secretary's desk beeped, and a high-pitched voice said, "Send him in."

The secretary didn't look up at the news, and when I didn't move fast enough I was picked up at the elbows and escorted across the room into Sachs' inner office.  It was not a particularly large room, nor was it ostentatious in any way, but it was impressive nonetheless.  It was a very busy place, with stacks of data tablets strewn over every available surface, including some parts of the floor. There were two chairs in front of the large desk where Sachs worked, and I was unceremoniously dumped into one of them where I remained very still except for rubbing my sore elbows.  Everything about the place said this was a very important room; a room where important work takes place and frivolity is not tolerated. This was a room where things get done.

The captain, on the other hand, was less impressive.  He was a short man even by my standards, and his clothing seemed to have been thrown together more by accident than by plan.  He was scribbling feverishly at a datapad as we entered, and like his secretary he didn't look up as I was tossed into a chair.  His hair was cut short to military standard, but still managed to look slightly mussed and untidy.  There were angry dark bags under his eyes and a faint smell of stale sweat coming from his direction.  He seemed likely to explode in any direction without warning, and I continued my policy of keeping my mouth shut.  My stomach was burning with anxiety and my fingers were itching to start popping joints, but I kept my hands where they were.  The marines took station on either side of the door after depositing me in the only free chair in the room.

Several moments passed as the captain continued to ignore me as he scribbled on the tablet.  I noted a slight frown on his forehead as he worked.  I smelled a setup to something, but still clueless as to what.  The attempts to overawe me were blatantly transparent, but no less effective for it.

Eventually Sachs finished his writing with a flourish, scanned the document briefly and tapped a button.  He put the tablet down and fixed me with an intense gaze.  "Trader Takenoshita. I trust you know why I've summoned you here today."

My mouth was dry, and I was forced to swallow several times before I could produce any words. "Uh, no sir.  I was working on my ship in Bay Twenty-Two when came to get me.  They didn't tell me what it was about."

Whatever Sachs expected to hear from me, that wasn't it.  His gaze sharpened further and the frown on his brow became even more pronounced.  "Don't play games with me, Trader, or it will go very ill for you.  You are under military jurisdiction and you can't appeal to your Guild from here.  Tell me what I want to know and you'll live."

I squirmed under his gaze, and lost the fight to keep my hands still.  My joints started popping like crazy as the stress triggered my nervous twitch.  I couldn't think of anything appropriate to say so I did the best I could.  "Uh, yes sir. What do you want to know?"

Sachs made an exasperated noise and sat back in his chair.  "Who do you work for, Takenoshita?  Is it the GalTrad Guild or someone else?  Who sent you here, and why?"

I sat utterly still, shocked by the questions.  Sachs thought I was spying on the ship for someone?  Why?  What had I done to provoke him? I couldn't think straight I was so scared. "Sir?  I don't understand.  Why do you think that I—"

"Don't play games with me, mister!" Sachs roared at me.  His unusually high-pitched voice made it sound almost like a squeak, but I wasn't in the mood to laugh about it.  "You've been cosying up to the crew ever since you got here, spying on us and collecting all sorts of data as well as sucking up valuable resources from our gullible quartermaster thanks to your relationship with Commander Takenoshita.  I don't know who sent you or why, but I intend to find out, by space!  Now talk!  I want names and I want them now or you'll sit in the brig until you do!"

"I'm not working for anyone!" I protested.  "I misjumped on my way to Fantulis with a cargo full of durasteel."

"I've heard your story," Sachs informed me.  "I don't buy it. I ran it past the chief astrogator and she thinks it's a load of bunk.  I want the truth."

"It is the truth!" I insisted. "I ended up stranded thousands of lightyears from Federation territory with some Tharl system my only hope for a jump point.  Between me and that system was a pulsar, and I took a chance that I could use it to jump.  Taking that chance got me fried and almost dead!  I don't know how I ended up here and I don't know why I'm alive, but I'm not working for anyone and I'm not spying on you!  Why are you doing this to me?"  This last was directed as much to the universe as to the officer sitting across from me.

"The odds of you surviving such a stunt, let alone miraculously ending up here in the process are astronomical.  It can't have happened by accident, which means you're here for a reason.  I want to know what it is and who put you up to it. If you won't tell me I'll have you hanged for treason."

I jumped to my feet, enraged by his accusations.  "This is preposterous!  Look at the damage my ship took!  Look at the damage I suffered!  You can't fake that! Even if I were working for somebody, no amount of money is worth risking my life over.  I'm just not that stupid!"

"Yes," said Sachs evenly.  You could have kept ice under his tongue for all the emotion in his voice, but his eyes were bright.  "The money.  I gather you've purchased a remarkable amount of quality parts from the supplies run by Sergeant Dag. However, not even a year ago you were in such financial straits you were attempting to survive with miniscule food runs out in the Southern Quadrant.  Now I find you in my neck of the galaxy with enough money to buy a new ship, using it to repair your old Ophid-class scout from our supplies.  Just how did you come by this fortune, Trader Takenoshita?"

I stared at him, wide-eyed as the fight drained from my body.  He knew; somehow he knew about my connection to the Consortium.  The only thing left was to discover how much he knew. I wouldn't let him trick me into admitting anything.  "I spent some time using Kandori as my base," I replied quietly.  "I traded information as well as cargo, and the Guild paid well."

"Information, you say?  Out of the sector headquarters?  Just what information were you selling?"  Sachs looked very pleased with himself, suggesting I'd just added another nail to my own coffin.

I sat down.  He wasn't going to like my answer, but I had nothing else to give him.  "Off-world price lists," I said.  "I can't trade according to traditional wisdom, so I used my speed to get the jump on good trade patterns.  I posted the prices for common goods from a dozen different systems, allowing other Traders to plan their jumps according to recent trends."

Sachs shrugged noncommittally.  "If you were doing so well, why were you jumping to Fantulis?  That's not even in the same quadrant."

I took a chance. He couldn't possibly know everything that happened on Kandori, could he?  "I'm not the only one with a fast ship.  Other Traders started competing with me and undercut my profit.  I was still making money, but not enough. I decided to jump somewhere else with blue-chip goods and start over.  It's a big galaxy, and I figured I could use my scheme in enough new places to save up a good retirement fund."

Sachs consulted a datapad for a moment. "It says here your ship was found to be broadcasting an illegal jamming field during your last approach to Kandori.  Could you explain that?"

"It isn't illegal, not in Kandori's sector anyway.  I had an LSJ installed on the Gilmour because I got jumped by pirates.  I forgot to turn it off during my final approach and it interfered with a Fiver scan.  I was instructed to shut down the field and I did.  The scan was completed and I was cleared for landing."

"It also says here that in your conversation with that...Fiver as you called her, you were extremely nervous and erratic. The Fifth Fleet decided to place you under surveillance, and you were last seen at the scene of a firefight in which several Fleet officers were wounded and killed. You apparently jumped away just before Fifth Fleet could send out word to have you detained.  It seems there was some confusion as to who was alive or dead for several hours after the fight.  You, clearly, managed to escape."

"I don't know what happened.  I was delivering data tablets to a guy and uh...Fifth Fleet stormed the warehouse.  My buyer pulled a gun and started shooting back, so I put as much distance between us as possible.  I escaped through a sewer main and jumped off-planet. Whatever that guy was messed up in, I didn't want any part of it."

"You realise there's now a local warrant for your arrest on Kandori.  You left the scene of a crime and you're wanted for questioning. And considering your sudden financial windfall, I'm inclined to believe you were more than just an innocent bystander in that firefight.  You could be held responsible for those officers' deaths, Trader Takenoshita."

"I didn't want any trouble," I whispered.  "I'd finally gotten a break, and then it all just seemed to fall apart.  I didn't kill anybody."

"Who did that man work for, Trader Takenoshita?  His body was recovered, so it must be his people holding your leash. What do they want you to do here?"

"I'm not working for anybody!" I yelled in frustration.  "How many times do I have to say it?  Nobody is holding my leash and the only thing I'm doing here is trying to leave! Once the Captain gives me clearance I plan to jump out of here and never look back!"

"I'm afraid you're not going anywhere, Trader Takenoshita.  If you cooperate, it will be noted when the time comes for sentencing, but if you won't give us any names it will go hard on you.  Very hard indeed."  Sachs' voice was so cold I was amazed ice wasn't forming around his lips.  He was convinced I was here to spy and possibly sabotage the Fleet, and nothing I could say would convince him otherwise. In his eyes I was already convicted; a trial would be a mere formality.

"You can't do this to me!"  I was blustering at this point, but I couldn't help it.  I was scared of this tiny little man with the intense eyes, and knowing that two of his goons were there to inflict any manner of unspeakable violence on me only reinforced that fear.  In fact, Sachs could do precisely what he said, unless he was overruled.  "I demand to speak to the Captain!"

Sachs' eyes narrowed, and his jaw set firmly.  "You have no right to demand anything, Takenoshita.  You're a guest aboard the Brisbane, not crew.  I won't allow the Captain to be bothered by you."

"You're threatening to imprison a civilian without any proof!  I have the right to appeal to your superiors!"

"I have sufficient proof to satisfy a military court.  You have no rights here.  Unless you talk you're going to the brig right now."

"I can't tell you anything because there's nothing to tell!  This is insanity!"

Something changed in Sachs' eyes.  If anything, he gave the impression of being even more dangerous than before. "Insanity, you say?  So you have been snooping among the crew.  Just what have they been saying about me?  Who talked to you?"

Suddenly, it made sense.  Sachs had cracked. It was understandable given the hopeless odds the crew had moaned about, and as the junior captain Sachs would share in the responsibility for failure.  The Brisbane and her crew had been waiting for months before I arrived, and the wait was just making things worse.  Now I was in the middle of it.

"Nobody has said anything about you, sir," I said quietly.

"Liar!  You said the word yourself!  Now who's been whispering among the crew?  They'll join you in the brig, I swear it!"

"I called this insanity because it is.  If you want to hold me for Kandori that's fine, but you accused me of spying, and there's absolutely no way I can prove that I have or haven't been spying on your ship! You're insisting I give you names I don't have or be punished for it!  If that isn't insane, I don't know what is.  Nobody had to suggest it to me!"

Sachs gestured to the marines who took station beside me.  "This is your last chance, Takenoshita.  Give me the names of the traitors among my crew or I'll have you spaced right now."

"That's illegal!" I declared.  "Even if I had any names to give you, you can't have me summarily executed!  You don't have the authority!"

"This is a Navy ship in a war zone and you're a spy aboard her.  My word is law, here!  Now talk!"

"I can't!" I wailed. "There's nothing to tell you!  Why can't you understand?  There is nobody!"

Sachs sighed heavily and scrubbed his face with his hands.  Finally he gestured briefly to the three of us standing. "Take him away, boys."

Again I was lifted up and carried out of the room, this time handcuffed with my arms behind my back.  "You can't do this!" I screamed as I was lifted away.  "Someone call the Captain!  You can't kill me like this!"

I would have gone on like this for some time had not one of my handlers clubbed me in the back of the head.  "Shut up, you scum."

I shut up, if only because I was in too much pain to yell anymore.  Spots swam in my vision, and I fought a sudden onset of nausea.  I had to be satisfied with soft whimpering as I was dragged down more corridors and lifts.  Eventually I was brought before a hatch, and the triped began entering digits into a keypad on the wall.  I started to struggle again, determined not to meet my final doom meekly.  The guards tightened their hold on me, but otherwise ignored me.  The keypad beeped its acceptance of the access code provided and the hatch hissed open. I was tossed in like a sack of meat, still handcuffed, and the door closed swiftly behind me.

"Wait!" I shrieked, and threw myself against the hatch.  It didn't even give me a satisfying "thump" when I hit it.  "You can't do this!  I don't want to die!"

I carried on for several minutes before running out of steam and sitting back.  I'd done all I could do, which wasn't much.  Now all I could do was wait for them to get around to blowing the outer hatch and letting explosive decompression do its work on me.

Except it wasn't happening.  Fearfully, I lifted my head and looked around.  I wasn't in an airlock after all, but a cell.  There was a single hard bunk to my left and some primitive sanitary facilities on the far wall.  A solitary light panel glowed brightly on the ceiling, a little too bright for comfort.  The other panels were an unremitting grey that was repeated from ceiling to floor.  Slowly I crawled to my knees (not an easy thing for a human to do with an aching head and hands confined behind the back) and moved over to the bunk, where I collapsed.  I lay there shaking for the next few hours as reaction took its toll. I was alive for now, but I had no idea for how long.  Would Sachs make good on his threat to toss me out into space, or would he just continue to torment me until I broke and gave him the names of traitors on board?  Eventually I decided on the latter.  His paranoia seemed too strong for him to kill off the only lead he had toward breaking the mutiny he'd convinced himself was growing on the ship.  At the moment, I would have cheerfully joined the ranks of the mutineers had I only known who they were.

The only warning I had about a visitor was when the hatch abruptly slid open.  I couldn't guess how long I'd been cooling my heels in the brig; the light level remained constant the whole time I'd been there and I'd received five rather unsatisfying meals.  My hands were still cuffed behind my back and I had spent a long, tiring process trying to get my arms to the front before I was finally forced to conclude that I just wasn't flexible enough to contort that way.  It made meals fairly messy, and I'm sure I looked like a naughty toddler caught sneaking custard from the tin.  My heart sank when I realised my visitor was Mika.

She was wearing a frown on her face as she stepped into the room and it grew deeper as she looked me over.  I didn't know if it was because of what she thought of me or how I looked; either way I felt like I'd shrunk to a fraction of my normal size.  Her nose twitched, and my shame intensified; with my hands restrained I'd been forced to wet myself and I reeked of it.  If this visit was part of Sachs' plan to break me, it was working.

Mika paused for a moment as if to let everything register, then said, "What happened, Hideo?"  Her voice was low and stern, and I heard echoes of my father's authority in it.  This wasn't my sister Mika talking; this was Commander Takenoshita of the Federation Navy.

"Oh space, Mika, I'm so sorry...." I blurted out and then stopped.  I was reacting to that voice of command, not to the one person who might be able to help me.

"What happened?" she demanded again.  I'd never heard her sound so stern, so angry.

"Sachs summoned me." The words poured out of me as though Mika had pulled a plug.  Once I started I couldn't stop.  "He demanded I tell him who I'm working for, that my accident in folded space was bunk.  He got hold of reports of some trouble I got into in Kandori and he decided that I'm a spy or something.  He threatened to put me in prison if I didn't talk, but Mika, I swear there's nothing to tell!  He had me tried and convicted without any way to defend myself! Then I said it was insane and he really snapped!  He accused me of conspiring with the crew and threatened to space me if I didn't tell him who they were! When I couldn't tell him what he wanted to hear, he had me carried out of his office and I thought they were really shoving me into an airlock!  They've had me handcuffed and stuck in here for I don't know how long!  I can't even scratch my nose! Mika, what's going on here?  They won't let me talk to the Captain or anybody!"

Mika's face tightened with every word, and her gaze became particularly sharp when I mentioned Kandori.  At the end she turned without a word and rapped at the door.  "Guard!  Get in here, on the double!"

I'm guessing the guard had discerned Mika's mood, because the door opened almost immediately and an unfamiliar marine stood at attention.  "Yes, Ma'am!"

Mika gestured to me. "Remove his cuffs.  He's in solitary confinement; that's enough."

The man hesitated. "Ma'am, word is that Cap'n Sachs wants this guy –"

"Remove his cuffs now or I'll see to it that you share his fate."  Mika didn't raise her voice, but she might have been shouting by his reaction.  He immediately stepped up to me and fumbled through his keys.  A moment later I was stretching sore muscles and rubbing my wrists.  I noticed that my hands had an alarmingly bluish tinge to them, and I felt the first prickling that told me I'd be in agony shortly.

"Now fetch this man some fresh clothes and a decent meal.  You can lock me in with him until you return.  We're not going anywhere for a while."

The marine tossed her a hasty salute before scurrying out the door.  Then Mika turned back to me with steel in her eyes. "Strip, Hideo.  You're going to get washed up while we talk.  We're going to get to the bottom of this."

Now it was my turn to hesitate.  I mean, we were family, but I hadn't had a bath with her since I was four.  She saw my reservations and smirked, the first hint of humour she'd displayed since she walked in.  "Don't go getting shy on me, space brain.  We don't have time for it.  I want to hear what Sachs is using to hold you, the whole story.  Don't even think about lying to me.  Then we'll figure out what to do from there."

The fist of ice clenched around my gut relaxed a bit.  I might be in trouble, but Mika was going to rescue me.  Again. I felt the first glimmer of hope that I'd had in a long time.  I began washing, naked as a jaybird as I told her everything that had happened to me since Bilton.  As she instructed, I left nothing out and didn't pull any punches.  I told her about getting set up by Obora and Nallis, and how I fast-talked my way out of arrest by Commander Jensen. I told her about Nallis' threat and Pitr's attack and subsequent death.  I told her about Eldee and everything I knew about the Naridi Consortium.  I told her about Eldee's last stand and how I escaped and ran.  I told her about John and the other pirates, and their invitation to join them in raiding Tharls. I explained how John offered a partnership with me, and how I had been flying straight over the past few months.  I recapped the details of the misjump and gambling on the pulsar.  I finished with my interview with Sachs, repeating every word as accurately as I could remember.  I'd had a lot of time to reflect on it.

Three days, it turned out.  I'd disappeared three days ago, and Mika couldn't find me anywhere.  Neither could she find Dag or any of the regular poker players.  Her search hit a brick wall at Sachs' office, and that's when her concern turned to alarm. Sachs was deliberately stalling and she knew it.  He also denied her access to Captain Ceaucescu, which was highly irregular.  Eventually she violated protocol and barged into the senior captain's office without warning.  Ceaucescu cut short his angry lecture as Mika began outlining her concerns and complaint with Sachs.  He used his clearance to break the security lock on all of the men Sachs had detained to find out where they were, including me.  Mika left to find me while Ceaucescu was ordering Sachs to report to his office.

"That isn't necessarily the end of it," Mika told me as I was drying myself with a hand towel. The door buzzed for attention, then slid open to admit the marine with a handful of crew uniforms.  He deposited them on the bunk before hurrying back out.

I sorted through the pile and found one close to my size.  "What happens next?" I asked as I stepped into a trouser leg.

"Well, if Sachs has a legitimate copy of the warrant for your arrest in Kandori, I can't get you out of here.  We'll have no choice but to impound the Gilmour and send you back on the next transport.  But Sachs' paranoia about conspiracy and mutiny obviously won't hold water.  He lied when he said he had enough evidence for a military court, and he'll have to answer that.  It isn't a serious enough offence to have him removed from command, but enough that he'll have to answer a lot of tough questions and possibly undergo a psych evaluation. If your guess is right, he'll probably be removed on psychological grounds until he can be rehabilitated."

I said nothing as I buttoned up the front of the shirt.  It wasn't a bad fit, almost good enough to make me look like a Navy man except for the lack of insignia.  Not that I had any desire to be mistaken for Navy.  I was thinking about having to go back to Kandori, under arrest, to be questioned by GalPol.  I didn't like where my thoughts were going.

"What about Dag and the others?" I asked, mostly so I wouldn't have to think about what was coming for me.

Mika looked startled at the question, but favoured me with a big smile.  "They'll be all right.  They're only guilty by association, so I'm sure the Captain will have them released immediately. I wouldn't be surprised to find them back on duty when I get back to the Two-Two.  It's you I'm worried about, Hideo.  I can't protect you from the Fifth Fleet, not from this."

"I know, Mika.  This isn't your fault, it's mine."  I took a deep breath and sat down on the hard bunk.  "I got caught between the hammer and the anvil, and now it's about to come crashing down.  If you interfered you'd only get hurt, one way or another."

"Why didn't you report them?  Why didn't you go to GalPol when you had the chance?"  Mika's eyes were a mixture of disapproval and pleading.  It broke my heart to see, and I looked away.

"The Consortium is big, Mika.  Bigger than anything I'd ever run into before, and Eldee was particularly ruthless. I had someone tell me about him; how he switched genders every few months to make it tough to track him, how he destroyed people who didn't cooperate with him.  If I went to GalPol they'd have to hide me away, keep me under lock and key to try to keep me alive. They'd have to ground me, and everything I've worked for so long would be gone.  No more Guild, no more ship, nothing.  And even then I don't know the Fleet can keep me alive.  The Consortium is organised, Mika.  They don't leave anything to chance.  They had someone waiting on the other send of the sewer I used just in case they needed a cover for their escape route.  They pay attention to little details like that, and that scares me as much as anything else. What's more, Eldee and his goons held off a commando raid long enough for me to escape; what does that tell you?  I think they could get past GalPol to get me and anyone around me.  So I went along with Eldee hoping for the chance to get away.  Once the shooting started I figured if I stayed I'd get fried but if I ran they'd ignore me without Eldee to remind them. It seemed like my only chance, and I still feel that way.  Going back to Kandori is a death sentence for me, Mika.  If the Fleet doesn't kill me, the Consortium will."

"It can't be that bad, can it?"

"You weren't there. You didn't see the way they operate. I learned a few things, Sis.  I listened to other Traders and pilots talk about GalPol. They're not the nicest folk in the galaxy and I've heard a lot of stories about corruption, how sometimes they're just as bad as the crooks they're trying to catch.  Okay, I have to take that with a grain of salt, but if only a fraction of what I've heard is true it's enough to make me hesitate before going to them unless I'm desperate.  And then there's the Consortium.  Eldee was using me to expand his base of operations outside Kandori's sphere of influence, and he was methodical about it.  There are layers upon layers to their operations and I only saw the surface. It was enough to convince me that once they decide to do something, it gets done."

Mika opened her mouth, but closed it without a word.  I recognised the gesture and understood completely.  She wanted to say something, but there wasn't really anything to say. We both knew it, and it didn't make us any happier.  We sat in companionable silence for a little while before she stirred again.

"You could enlist."

I was shocked to my very core.  "Excuse me?"

"You could enlist in the Navy.  Maybe GalPol can't protect you, but the rest of the Navy can.  The Fifth Fleet is just a glorified police force, and not all that well equipped.  The Federation has been focusing the majority of its resources into the war effort, and it goes to great pains to make sure that those who enlist are afforded every privilege and security.  If you enlist in the Navy, I guarantee that nobody, not even your Consortium can touch you. If you can just stay alive through the investigation at Kandori, I can make sure that the courts waive any sentencing in favour of military service.  There are a lot of guys who have used that escape, even on this ship."

"Mika, I'm not Fleet material.  I haven't got anything they want."

"That's not true. Dad says you're a pretty good pilot."

"Dad says you're a fine officer and a credit to the family.  He's always been big on family.  He'd say I was a sharp businessman if I told him I was opening a candy store."

"No, really.  Dad says you're a lousy Trader, but a pretty good pilot. He spoke with the shuttle pilots you apprenticed under, and they say you're the best they've seen in a long time.  You're patient and thorough and good in a crisis.  You don't take shortcuts that other pilots might use, and that makes you a safer pilot than most.  But when you have to fly by the seat of your pants, they say there's nobody better in the entire system.  Pilots are an odd breed, Hideo.  I should know, I command a squadron of them.  They're quick to brag about their own skill, but to others they dole out praise like misers. Think about it, space brain.  I think you'd be a credit to the Fleet, and if what you say is true it's probably your only option if you want to live."

I thought this over. "And my ship?"

"I'm sorry, Hideo. You're going to lose her no matter what.  She'll be confiscated and pressed back into service aboard the Brisbane, and if it's any consolation I promise she'll be looked after.  Maybe, if I play my cards right, I can keep her under my command until you can reclaim her.  That's the best I can do, I'm afraid."

"It's all right, Mika.  It isn't your fault.  You're doing the best anyone could, and I appreciate it."

"I know, it's hard to watch your dreams fly out the airlock.  I was going to go into Tactical, sit on the bridge and stay in the centre of things. But I kept failing the Maths courses, and I had to kiss Tactical goodbye.  I just couldn't cut it.  As it turns out, I love what I'm doing now and I'm rising through the ranks faster than I could have as a Tac officer.  Life's funny that way."

"Yeah, it's pretty hilarious all right."

Mika stood up and straightened her uniform.  "I'm sorry you've come to this, Hideo.  I don't think it's entirely your fault; you always seem to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But I promise I'll keep doing everything I can to make it easier for you."

"I know you will, Mika.  Thank you."  I stood up and impulsively pulled her into a hug.  She was startled at first, but quickly returned it.  "While you're at it, could you have some beer sent down with my next meal? The swill they serve here isn't fit for animals.  Even the rats turn their noses up at it."

Mika laughed lightly. "Don't push your luck, space brain. You're lucky I found you at all."

"Take care, Mika.  I really think Sachs is nuts, genuinely crazy.  I don't want you getting hurt because you helped me."

She snorted expressively.  "Don't try to tell me how to do my job, little brother.  I can handle Sachs.  You don't get my job without knowing how to play hardball when you have to."

"Yeah, well, just be careful.  You're my only way out of here."

"Don't worry.  We'll have this cleared up in no time, I promise."  Mika rapped at the door again, and it slid open instantly.  "You be good, or I'll have them put the cuffs back on."

"Don't even joke about that."

"Sorry.  I'll see you again as soon as I can."  She stepped out of the cell and the door slid shut behind her, leaving me alone with my anxieties.

Sitting in the brig gave me plenty of time to reflect.  I was moved out of solitary confinement to a more relaxed security area, but I was a prisoner nonetheless.  Mika and Dag came to visit me when they could, but everyone else maintained a conspicuous absence.  I couldn't really blame them for it; attracting the neurotic attentions of Sachs was enough to put a pall on any friendship.  Sachs was, in fact, relieved of duty pending a physical and mental evaluation, but the information he retrieved about me was accurate.  I was wanted for questioning in Kantor, and Captain Ceaucescu had no reason not to give me to them.  I therefore had to cool my heels for four days until a Navy transport made its scheduled arrival.

Four days is a long time to reflect.  Too much time, if you ask me.  The visits from Mika and Dag helped to distract me, but on the whole it was just my thoughts and I.  I found myself dwelling endlessly on the events I'd relayed to Mika; questioning my choices and wondering how I could have avoided the spot I was in.  I found far too many flaws in my character, times when I could have done better and places I need improvement.  There was very little I could pass off as fate and the misjump and Sachs' paranoia comprised a majority of them.  I suppose that, given more time, I could have rationalised everything away as not my fault, but my heart wasn't in it.  It was my fault, and I knew it.  I'd been impatient, greedy and lazy, more interested in quick profits than anything else.  I'd gotten a good plan going in Kantor, and I blew it trying to make easy money. Whenever I brought in a good sum of money, I spent it all chasing fantasies.  Sometimes I had been responsible, like putting in the necessary maintenance and upgrades to the Gilmour, but I found those occasions to be few.

On my third night, lying on my bunk waiting for the sleep that continued to elude me, the lights went out suddenly, accompanied by a gentle shudder in the deck.  A moment later klackons sounded, and the lights switched to red.  I'd never experienced it before, but I'd watched enough public entertainment to know what it meant:  we were under attack.

I rolled from my bunk and went to the door.  "Hey, guard!" I called.  There was no answer.  "Hey, what's going on?"

There was no one out there.  I'd been abandoned in the excitement, and I began to imagine horrible ways of dying here in my cell, alone.  I scared myself badly, and began yelling to be let out.  I shouted myself hoarse without any effect.  Nobody cared about a single civilian criminal too dumb to avoid getting caught.

I sat down on my bunk, trying to avoid thinking about death by asphyxiation, vacuum, extreme cold or worse.  The ship shuddered again and again, and light and gravity failed more than once, taking longer and longer to return each time.  I didn't know if the Tharl ever attempted boarding parties, but I knew about their attitudes toward prisoners.  I enjoyed several minutes of hair-raising nightmares about that until a new noise distracted me.  I immediately rushed to the door screaming to be let out.

"Be quiet, Hideo! If anyone realises what I'm doing, we'll both be shot!"

"Mika!" I yelled, then remembered what she had said and continued in a more reasonable tone, but not exactly quiet. "What's going on? I woke up with the ship shaking and sirens going off everywhere, but the guard left!  Are we under attack?"

"What do you think is going on?" Mika snapped at me as she pounded keys at the guard station. "A wild party and you weren't invited? Yes, we're under attack.  A Tharl fleet jumped out of hyperspace right behind us and caught us by surprise.  The task force has been alerted and we're forming up farther outsystem, but the Tharl have already damaged our propulsion.  We're moving at half speed and we need help.  I'm not taking any chances with you, little brother.  I'll be launching my squadron in ten minutes, and you'll be flying the Gilmour out behind them."

"If the Tharl don't fry me on the spot, the Brisbane will!" I protested.

"Maybe, but that's the plan."  Mika finished whatever she was doing at the station and my cell door slid open with a clack. "We don't have time to argue.  Get moving!"

I jumped, reacting once again to her voice ofauthority, the one used to command.  I didn't like my chances, but a sudden thought struck me as I followed her down the corridor at top speed.  "Wait a minute, what about you?"

"What about me?" Mika demanded.  We came up to a lift and she slammed the call button.  She wasn't even perspiring, while I was breathing like a bellows.  "I've got to take care of my squadron.  I didn't join the Navy to push papers, you know."

"You're jeopardising your career over this," I accused her.  The lift beeped and the doors slid open.  There was no one inside, and we jumped in.  Mika hit the button for her deck.  "There's something else going on.  Something you're not telling me."

She glared at me. "Don't be stupid, Hideo.  I'm watching out for my family, just like you'd do in my place."

I shook my head. "Don't con a con artist, sis.  You're looking out for me, but you're still holding something back."

"Fine, if that's what you want to think, I can't stop you."  She turned away from me and watched the changing deck numbers.

I took a minute to catch my breath, and finally it came together for me.  "You don't think the Brisbane will survive, do you?" I said quietly.  She didn't move. "You're sending me out there into danger because the danger here is greater.  Out there I have a chance to survive with my fast ship and small profile. The Tharl will destroy this ship before you can rejoin the task group."

Her shoulders slumped.  "Damn you, Hideo. You're a lot smarter than you used to be."

"Come with me, Mika."

Instantly, her spine was straight as a laser, and the glare returned.  "Desert my post?  Leave my shipmates to die? That's cowardly! Even if I could abandon my friends, I'd be facing a court martial with a death sentence.  I'd be dead either way, Hideo.  Don't ask me to compromise my integrity as well."

"I'd rather have you alive and running for your life than honourably dead.  This ship is doomed; I've heard how Tharl ships are superior and you already said you're running at half speed.  If the worst happens, there won't be a task group to rejoin. You'd be listed as dead in action. Or, if you want, I could take you to the nearest Federation world and we tell them I picked you up in an escape capsule.  I don't want you to die, Mika!"

In my mind I was hearing Jiran's voice in the Gilmour cursing me for abandoning her.  I couldn't have done anything to save her, but I could do something about Mika.  I don't know what Mika was thinking, but from the expression on her face I suspected her thoughts paralleled mine.

She shook her head sadly.  "I couldn't do that, space brain.  I'm Navy through and through.  I can't abandon my shipmates when they need me most, and with Sachs out of action the Captain needs everyone he can trust."  She fixed me with a lopsided grin.  "Dad didn't raise any wimps.  You've cheated your share of death, so maybe this is my turn."

"Mika..." I began, but she cut me off.

"No, Hideo.  This is the way it has to be.  My place is here, yours is on your ship.  Nobody else knows you're here; the Captain didn't alert the Navy you were aboard, he planned to just quietly shuffle you off to the Fifth Fleet.  This is your chance to escape, and the Captain won't come after you if we survive. It's his way of apologising for Sachs. So don't blow it, okay?"  She pulled me into a strong hug, and we stood locked in our embrace until the lift opened its doors.

"Come on," she said brusquely as she wiped away a tear.  She led me to the bay where the Gilmour waited.

I frowned as I looked over my ship.  "She looks different.  What'd you do?"

"She was confiscated after your arrest and was to be pressed back into service, remember?  I couldn't send her out the way she was after you got done with her, right?  So I got my crew working on repairs.  She isn't finished or she'd be flying with the rest of the squadron, but she'll fly. I guarantee it."

I opened the main hatch and stepped in side.  "Computer," I called.  "Give me a report."

"Boss!"  The computer sounded surprised.  I wondered how much power it had to spare if it could afford that extra touch.  "I thought you were gone for good!"

"Thanks for the confidence," I grumbled.  "Now give me that report."

"We're 80% overall. Power, propulsion and life support have been overhauled, but the rest was going to be finished in a week or two. Shields are working at 62% and fire control at 29%.  That cannon you installed is still there, but I can't promise to hit what you're aiming for. Sensors are at 49%, navigation at 83%. Power systems still have a few glitches, but we've got more available than we did when we landed on Ansalon. Communications are still out and I wouldn't put anything in stasis if I were you.  Transition engines should be okay, but we haven't had the chance to test them.  Hull integrity is at 74%, so if we're going somewhere I suggest you drive carefully."

"No promises," I replied.  "Warm up the engines.  I'll be there for pre-flight in a moment."

I turned back to Mika.  "Come with me."

She shook her head sharply.  "I can't, Hideo. Don't ask me."

"You know my comms are out.  I won't be able to talk to you after I close the hatch.  I'm going to leave it open until the last minute, so if you change your mind –"

"I won't," she said sternly, and then her expression softened.  "Goodbye, space brain.  I'm going to miss you.  We'll flash three yellow and one red when you're cleared to launch.  Got that?"

"Three yellow and one red.  I'm still leaving my hatch open, though."

"I know."  She turned, then hesitated and turned back. "Hideo, you've got the best chance of any of us.  Try to find her. Please."

There was no need to ask whom she meant.  It was Jiran, of course, our long-lost sister.  I had no idea where to look for her, but Mika was right.  If anyone had a chance, it was me.  "I will."

She turned and walked away without another word.  "Mika!" I called after.  "If you get the chance, fight your way to the planet.  If you land under your own power, they'll let you live."  She didn't answer.  I waited a moment longer, then made my way to the cockpit.

"Welcome back, Boss," the computer greeted me.  The video display was beaming cheerfully at me.

"Thanks," I muttered as I dropped into my chair.  It felt good.  Very good.  "But don't congratulate me yet.  We still have to get out of this mess alive. Bring up the pre-flight list."

"Screen two, Boss."

I busied myself with the checklist, using it to distract myself from what was going on around me. It was hard to do, what with the ship occasionally shuddering around me and knowing that Mika was up there in the bay command centre committing suicide in the name of honour and integrity.  It occurred to me that I should slug her, knock her out and carry her onboard.  It also occurred to me that considering her superior physical condition, I'd only end up with a fat lip and burning ears.  Still, my soul cried out that I should do something.

Well, I was doing something.  I was getting ready to run away.  After all, it's what I'm good at, right?

"Boss, the main hatch is still open," the computer reminded me.

"Leave it open until we depart," I said. "We might have a passenger."

"She's not coming, you know."

"Leave it open," I repeated.  "I'm giving her the choice anyway."

The ship continued to shudder around me as the Federation warship took fire.  I stared up at the control booth, silently willing Mika to forget her notions of honour and duty and save herself.  Having an honorable sister was a wonderful thing, but less so when she's dead.

The preflight checklist finished too soon.  "Warm up the engines," I instructed.  "Get ready to punch out fast."

"Boss, that's dangerous inside a hanger.  We're supposed to manoeuvre on thrusters only."

"I know, but we might not have time for that.  We'll use the thrusters if we can, but I want the engines ready just in case."

"Acknowledged. Sublight engines are hot and ready to go."

The ship rocked as something impacted hard on the hull.  I could only imagine the devastation necessary to induce such a reaction in such a huge craft.  All around me, smaller fighter craft waited with their own engines burning at idle.  I didn't think they were going to launch on thrusters, either.

Another impact jolted the ship, and the lights went out.  Suddenly, lights flared from dozens of spots as the fighter wing launched.  Simultaneously, a spotlight flashed yellow three times, followed by a single red.  "Close the hatch!" I shouted.  As soon as the screen registered green I immediately lifted the ship and engaged the main engines.  We shot out of the hanger and into space.

Be safe, Mika, I thought to her silently.  Make it through whatever you have to do.

Distant flashes of light broke the normal tranquillity of space, and my screens were filled with ships on wild trajectories and even more inert debris.  The computer thoughtfully provided different symbols for the two sides based on transponder signals.  As promised, there were almost three Federation ships for every Tharl, but the Federation signals were dropping off the screen faster than I could follow.  I couldn't stick around long if I wanted to live.  I double-checked with the computer on the biggest gap in the area and started a weaving course for it.

It was even more harrowing than the pulsar.  My alarms announced weapons lock at least six times, and I was forced to evade frantically.  Mindful of the difficulties with the fire control computer, I didn't attempt to return fire on anyone.  Firing my lasers would only drain my batteries, and I didn't have that many missiles to waste.  I was hit twice, making me pray that the repairs would hold, but no one was interested enough to finish the job.  Everyone seemed to be making wild strafing runs, and Federation numbers dwindled fast.  Likewise my shield strength every time I failed to dodge an attack.  I watched the numbers on my screen drop, making me wonder if the next time a laser or a missile would get through and destroy me.  The computer, thankfully, didn't offer comment other than to bring my attention to changes in threat ratings or equipment status.

That changed abruptly as we began to get closer to the edge of the battle.  "Boss," the computer said in a warning tone. "I'm reading multiple objects along our course, and many of them pose a collision threat."

"Objects?" I exploded in frustration.  "I've got plenty of objects out there trying to kill me!  What objects are you talking about?"

"Asteroids," the computer replied calmly.  "I conjecture that the battle has not crossed into those coordinates because of the threat of collision with asteroids."

I immediately turned to the scope and called up enhancement of the asteroids the computer was talking about.  Sure enough, there was a belt of inert rock floating around in space, held in place through the millennia by the conflicting gravitational forces of the planets spinning around the sun.  They were a navigational hazard under the best of conditions, and would require a massive course change to avoid.  These weren't the best conditions, and going in during a battle would be suicide.  I pulled up a range estimate on the nearest edge of the belt.

"Course change," I snapped, and plugged in the numbers.

"Boss, this isn't the Ghalag," the computer advised me.  "You only had one Tharl scout after you, not a fleet.  This is inadvisable."

"Inadvisable is better than dead," I retorted, and initiated a precision scan of the asteroid belt.  "Do you see another way to get out of this without getting shot?"

There was a significant pause before the computer responded.  "Negative."

"Then stop complaining and help me plot those rocks."

Unlike their portrayal in popular entertainment, asteroids do not tend to fly about chaotically.  Rather, it ay seem chaotic to the human eye but they all tend to follow the same course.  By the time a belt is formed the number of collisions has reduced dramatically.  They all fall in roughly the same direction and speed making it possible (but not pleasant) to plot a course between them.  There is always the danger that the rotation of two or more rocks will leave no room for a ship to pass, requiring painstaking data and a sharp eye. I've done it once before under duress and gotten lucky; I didn't want to push my luck a second time but saw no choice. I'd been listening to people butter me up with compliments on my piloting skills and it was time to earn my reputation.

"Insertion in twenty-eight seconds," the computer announced.  I nodded sharply and continued my plot.

The Gilmour suddenly bucked and rocked wildly, and I didn't even need the computer's report to know what happened.

"Laser attack," the computer reported dutifully.  "Direct hit on stern starboard quarter, shields have failed in that section.  Minor structural damage to the hull.  Tharl fighter at 600 kilometres and closing.  He has weapons lock on us."

I had two choices left to me.  I could turn around and face the Tharl with my stronger bow shields or try to lose him in the belt.  Even if I hadn't already decided my course, the decision was made.  I just didn't have any more time left.  "Here we go."

I pulsed the engines to close the distance to the belt and then braked abruptly to avoid impacting on a small asteroid.  Then I was in.

"Keep watching the plot," I ordered.  "Send updates to screen two.  Has our friend broken off?"

"Negative," came the answer.  "Tharl fighter closing at forty-one kps.  He will intersect the belt in seventeen seconds."

I sent the Gilmour spiralling between a quartet of tumbling boulders as the Tharl fired his laser again.  The beam that might have disintegrated my starboard quarter instead superheated one of the asteroids, vaporising a fair chunk of rock and changing its vector enough that it bumped against my hull.  Another shudder went through the ship, but damage was minimal.

My universe shattered into discreet segments of time, and I passed between them in something like a trance.  The asteroids danced on my scope and in my view and I danced between them with delicate precision.  The Tharl fighter was determined not to let me get away and appeared to easily manoeuvre around the obstacles I attempted to put between us.  It was hard enough to keep from smashing myself to bits without worrying about being blown up.  Every time I thought I had the Tharl, he managed to twist away without harm.  Although I'd done this once before, it seemed different this time.  I'd lost a scout that time, but this fighter was much more determined and much more deadly.

I felt like I'd been dodging rocks for days, but a glance at the chronometer told me only ten minutes had passed.  We were moving at a leisurely pace of six kilometres per second, and neither the Tharl nor I were willing to push it any faster.  This clearly didn't bother him, as he fired almost continually in an attempt to destroy me.  Sooner or later, I was going to smash up or dodge a little too late, and our stalemate would end. I needed to change the playing field.

I watched the plot with half an eye as I wound my way through the rocks.  I gently shifted away from my straight-line course through the belt to a more circular route, one that would keep me inside the boundaries. Naturally, this increased the statistical chance that I was going to become part of the drifting debris, but the Tharl behind me would take care of that if I left cover.  Finally, I spotted a relatively clear patch within the belt and headed for it.

Naturally, the computer noticed our new heading.  "Boss, if you go in there he'll have a clear shot at you."

"That's what I'm counting on," I replied.  "He won't be able to pass up the opportunity.  Ready two missiles and aim them directly astern."

"Missiles ready. You think he won't dodge them?"

"I think they're my best bet, and they've got to have room to hit him.  Is the fire control computer up to targeting missiles?"

"Not really, Boss.  You've got a better chance of him running into them."

"I see your point.  Program the first warhead to detonate at four hundred kilometres.  Fire them at half-second intervals."

"I don't know if fire control is up to that," the computer warned.

"We'd better hope it is.  See if you can lend some circuits, maybe crunch some numbers for it.  I think I can fly solo for a minute."

A smaller asteroid by my window suddenly exploded into a bright, white ball of vaporising gas as it was struck and superheated by the Tharl's laser attack.  I flinched in spite of myself and tried hard not to dodge away from it.  I allowed myself to add a little more thrust to kick myself ahead and then burst through the debris into the clear patch I'd plotted.  I counted down the seconds in my head.

"Fire!" I yelled.  I waited for the second lurch that told me the second missile was away even before the data came up on my display and performed a hard tack on the x-axis of the ship, bringing my less-vulnerable quarter around to bear on the Tharl.  Just before I completed the manoeuvre the Gilmour rocked violently and the power flickered for an instant.

"Laser attack," the computer announced needlessly.  "Direct hit to our forward port quarters.  The shield array took the brunt of it, and the system is offline."

I replied with something passionately rude.

"It was nice knowing you, Boss," it replied kindly.

I watched my plot as the two missiles I'd fired in desperation flew toward the Tharl.  We were so close I could almost make them out with the naked eye, and we were certainly close enough for me to make out the ugly alien profile of the ship hunting us.  From what I could make of the data, both missiles were going to hit.  However, the Tharl didn't think so and dodged out of the way of the first missile at the last second.  My heart sank as I watched it impact on a large nearby asteroid, shattering the ancient rock in a fury of nuclear fire.

Then the impossible happened.  Again the Tharl dodged the second missile, but its manoeuvre brought it between the missile and the shockwave of the first.  As I watched, the debris from the explosion struck the stern of the fighter sending it spinning out of control and into the path of the remaining missile. The warhead detonated square in the middle of the bow, forcing the ship back into the shockwave of the first explosion.  There was no sign that the Tharl was trying to pull away again.

I stared dumbfounded until the computer prompted me.  "Boss, incoming debris!  We need to get out of the way!"

I snapped back into reality and I kicked my engines into full power for a two-second burst. I slipped the Gilmour between two large asteroids and tacked to keep them between my ship and the shockwave behind us.  A moment later the data on the screens assured me I'd survive, provided I slowed down. I brought the ship to a relative stop and sat back in my seat to let my heart settle down.

"Congratulations, Boss.  That was the best flying I've ever seen."

"We survived by pure dumb luck," I retorted, but without much force.

"No, that was really smart," the computer responded, to my surprise.  "You did everything you could to negate the Tharl's advantages, and boxed him in with two missiles.  Whether or not you planned it that way, you did everything right, and that's why we're alive right now."

"Do you think he's still alive out there?" I asked quietly.

There was a pause as the computer reviewed the data logs.  "Inconclusive," it announced.  "Scans indicate the Tharl's shields and engines went offline in the blast, and he clearly took heavy damage.  However, he wasn't vaporised by either explosion, and there's no indication of any secondary explosions in the shockwave patterns.  He could still be out there wondering where we are."

I mulled this over for a moment.  "How about the battle with the Fleet?  Any sign of how that's going?"

"Negative.  We're too deep in the belt to get a clear reading.  There are still ships out there, but I couldn't tell you who they belong to."

"All right."  I sat up straight and plotted a new course. "Come about at one-seven-five by zero-six-eight mark one-eight-one.  Let's go see what happened to our friend."

"And if he's still alive and hunting us?"

"Then we go silent and hope he doesn't see us first."

For a wonder, the computer didn't push the argument.  We swung about in a very wide arc, approaching the last known position of the Tharl fighter from a completely different vector with our eyes wide open.  I kept our speed very low, crawling through the asteroids at a bare fraction of the pace I'd used to get here.  It took almost half an hour before we found anything.

"Contact," the computer reported.  "Tharl vessel at zero-one-two by zero-zero-six mark zero-zero-three."

"What's his thermal output?" I asked, preparing to either run or play dead depending on what the Tharl was going to do.

"Marginal," came the answer.  "There are some minor fluctuations, but the ship is cooling off rapidly.  The signature suggests the Tharl lost power during our counterattack and never restored it.  He's also rotating at a rate consistent with the force applied from the blast.  If he's not laying an ambush, I'd say he's been dead for forty-one point seven minutes."

"I'd call that encouraging."  I laid in an approach course and proceeded at the same cautious vector as before. Five minutes later I made a slow orbit around the fighter and pointed my bow directly toward his belly.  I primed the main cannon and let it idle.

"If he twitches, blast him."

"I estimate a 79% probability of hitting him from this distance if he doesn't move," the computer replied.  "Meanwhile, what will you be doing?"

"I'm going to do something very stupid, and I know it.  I don't want any lectures about it.  I'm going over there to look around.  Call it a salvage operation."

"Got it, Boss."

My old environmental suit had been replaced with a military one.  I was surprised at this windfall until I remembered how the old one had been irradiated by my stunt with the pulsar, and my ship was being conscripted into military service.  Mika had been efficient in replacing those things easily replaced, like suits, and hadn't had the time to pull it out before I left.  The new suit had better armour, directional communication lasers and built-in weaponry.  Unfortunately, I didn't really have the time to play with my new toys.  If the Tharl decided to investigate, I could have hours or minutes.  Or the fellow I'd blasted could be on his way over to me.  A half hour later, I was stepping out of the airlock and pushing off toward the Tharl.  Fortunately, the Navy suit had standardised controls for manoeuvring jets, so I didn't need to spend time learning how to move.

The suit's onboard computer marked the range at slightly over fifty meters.  It also matched the Tharl's ship configuration with something it called a Gorash-class fighter.  That class carried two forward military-grade lasers and a rear military laser, mounts for a dozen missiles and an engine output that easily matched the Gilmour.  These were nasty ships, and whatever anyone said I had taken it out by pure luck.  In a straight-out fight, I'd be dead.

At five meters I kicked in the manoeuvring jets to slow my approach.  A moment later I touched down heavily against the alien hull and looked for handholds.  I didn't really see any, so I had to rely on the gravity soles of the suit.  After a few minutes of searching, I called back to the Gilmour.  "I don't see a hatch.  Any way in?"

I got nothing but silence over the line.  I'd forgotten that Mika hadn't restored communications before we lifted.  I was on my own.  I tried to remember the details of the scan as we approached the wreck, but all I could remember was the breach near the engines.  It was a hot spot, suggesting radiation leakage.  I wasn't keen on exposing myself to more radiation, but I didn't remember any other places to enter and I couldn't find anything suggesting a hatch or airlock.  After a moment of indecision, I decided to take the risk.

I queried the suit's computer for directions, turned 110 degrees to my left and started walking slowly and carefully.  The area was largely clear of debris, but I was in unfamiliar territory and I didn't know what to expect from moment to moment.  In twenty minutes I found the breach the computer suggested.  The suit also warned of radiation danger, but indicated that its systems were capable of handling it.  I shined a light down into the depths of the ship, but didn't see anything of interest.  "Well, here I go."

Naturally, there was no answer.  Even had the Gilmour been capable of receiving a transmission, the wreck had rotated so she was out of sight.  Still, it felt good to break the silence.  I gathered my courage, turned off the gravity soles and pushed off so I floated in.

The interior of the Tharl ship was indescribably alien, but that wasn't much of a surprise.  Everything seemed to flow organically, swirling together in incomprehensible designs that made my eyes water if I stared at them too long.  The room I entered was very large, with vaguely spherical dimensions.  There was at least four meters of space between what I selected as the floor and the hull above my head.  Radiation leaked slowly from the wall to my right, and I turned left to find a way out.  I found a small hole about the width of my head, and when I shined my light through it I saw a tubular corridor leading further into the wreck.  I pushed and pulled at the edges of the hole without any effect; even the enhanced muscular assistance from the suit I couldn't make a dent in the alien metal.  I searched around the edges and eventually found a sliding ball bearing that gave under light pressure.  As the bearing moved, the door dilated open.

The tube twisted down and to the left, more of the intricate flowing etchings making me dizzy. I wasn't sure of the intent, but it seemed the ship was designed as much for art as it was war.  I imagined the art world on Kandor would go nuts over this stuff, but sadly it was nothing I could take with me.  I hadn't seen so much as a tool or a control panel to play with.  I left my suit's gravity soles disengaged and sailed through the corridor, my breath sounding heavy and loud in my ears.

Were the suit's computer not capable of tracking my path, I would have become hopelessly lost in the twisting, winding tunnels that permeated the wreck.  The fighter was two-thirds again the size of the Gilmour, and I couldn't make much sense of the layout.  I came across cell-like rooms that could have been quarters or food lockers.  They were empty, giving me no clue of what they might have contained.  I ran across several large chambers likewise empty.  The suit thoughtfully provided a map overlaid by what it knew of the Gorash's dimensions.  If the Tharl were disposed toward keeping their pilot stations near the bow, the map told me I was headed in the right direction.

Eventually I came to a dead end.  I was able to make out the dimensions of another circular door, and I found the ball bearing below it.  When I slid the bearing to the opposite end, the door slid open to reveal a scene of carnage like I never imagined.

The Tharl ship hadn't only taken damage in the engine compartments.  Fragments of rock had also breached the pilot compartment, and explosive decompression had finished the job.  It was difficult to view the results without retching, and I had to pause to look away.  There were bits of tentacle and orange paste everywhere.  The main bulk of the Tharl corpse floated in the middle of the room restrained by harness comprised of three straps.  The body was covered with blisters and small craters as internal organs burst with such violence as to breach the surface.  It was enough to give me an idea of what a live Tharl might look like, something few humans can claim, and I decided I much preferred them dead. I couldn't imagine what they evolved from, but I guess something aquatic.  Tentacles surrounded the body, and they all led back to a single, beak-like mouth. From there, the resemblance to anything I knew ended.  It seemed to fit with the design of the ship, and completed the feeling of alienness I had about everything.  However, there was nothing salvageable.  I started back to return to the Gilmour.

Halfway back I came to an intersection where I'd decided to go right instead of left.  On impulse, I decided to follow the left tunnel to see where it would take me.  When I consulted the map, it seemed there was a large portion of the ship I hadn't seen.  I crept along a little faster than before, perhaps a bit recklessly.  I reasoned that anything intending to kill me would have come out and found me by now, so I needn't worry too much about running into anything nasty like the pilot.  Of course, that assumed that the Tharl thought anything like humans, an assumption that was necessarily completely erroneous.  However, I was trying very hard to maintain happy thoughts.  It was a distinct challenge.

My impulse turned out to be providence.  I came to another door similar to the one leading to the pilot.  I braced myself for more carnage, but what I ended up with was a room full of junk.  At least, that's what it looked like at first glance.  Gradually what I realised was the room was filled with machinery similar to the alien construction around me.  Whether they were intended as spares for the military or cargo for trade, I couldn't fathom.  What I did know was that I'd hit the jackpot.  Somebody ought to be willing to pay top dollar for genuine, mint-condition Tharl artefacts.

I hauled myself back to the Gilmour double-time to get the hauler ready.  Naturally, the computer wanted to know what was going on.

"Have you ever encountered Tharl technology?" I asked curiously.

"No," the computer admitted.  "What little memory remains of my service in the Navy suggests that no one else has, either. Tharl ships taken in combat have always been too badly damaged to properly study."

"Well, hold onto your transistors, ‘cause we've got ourselves a load of spare parts for Tharl machinery."

"That's impossible," the computer declared.  "That's a fighter craft, not a merchant ship."

"You know the difference between the two?"

"Well, no.  But it only stands to reason.  Why would a merchant ship be involved in a fleet battle like that?"

"Because that's Tharl culture," I said smugly, happy to be in control of the conversation for once. "Merchant ships are required to do double duty as military ships, and now there's a hold full of alien bits and pieces that fit Tharl ships mine for the taking."

"We should tell the Navy about this," the computer suggested. "They'd pay handsomely for this kind of breakthrough."

I paused long enough to give the bulkheads a cold glare before going back to prepping the sled.

"Oh, right.  You're not exactly on good terms with them."

"Don't get me wrong. I don't care who buys this stuff, so long as they pay in hard credits, and lots of it.  I just don't want to get thrown in prison in the process."

"You know, showing up with this in hand could earn you a pardon.  It's not unknown."

"We'll see.  For now, I have work to do."

It took me four hours of solid, sweaty work before I'd finished filling my hold with as much alien junk as would fit in it.  The computer gave me regular status reports on what was happening nearby and what it thought of the biometric readings it was getting from my suit whenever I got close enough for it to download the information.  I reminded it that of course I was tired and undernourished. The suit's food supplements weren't really gourmet meals, and I'd been running on stress and nerves for as long as I could remember.  Plus, I was still worried about Mika out there somewhere, maybe dead or dying, maybe just a cloud of expanding gas thanks to the efforts of the swooping Tharl fighters. I tried not to think about it but continued running back and forth with the sled until I was satisfied I couldn't fit anything else.  On impulse, since it had served me so well of late, I snatched up an odd-looking cylinder with curious imprints on one end before returning to the Gilmour for good.

"Okay, how are we doing?" I asked as I settled back into my chair.

"Same as we were before, but with about fifteen tons more mass."

"That's what I wanted to hear.  Okay, engines warm?"

"They've been on standby the whole time, Boss."

"Light ‘em.  Prime the forward laser and target the Tharl's engine compartment."

"Boss, targeting isn't that reliable, remember?  The best I can promise is to hit the ship at this range."

"All right, then. Hit it."

So we hit it.  I had a fairly powerful offensive laser mounted on my bow, and we managed to hit the Tharl ship square on.  It took the first hit, and the second and the third.  It wasn't until the ninth shot that the thing finally started to break up.

"Are you looking to vaporise it?" the computer asked me.

"No," I replied slowly.  "Better not. If anyone's watching, we've probably sent out enough signals.  I think we've done enough here.  Let's move out of here slowly, then sort of drift over to the other side of the belt. Once we've put enough distance between us, we can start scanning for a jump point."

"Got it, Boss."

"Engines at ten percent.  Set course zero-zero-five by zero-zero-three mark zero-zero-three."

"Course plotted. Ready when you are, Boss."